Thursday, December 24, 2020

Film Discoveries of 2020


Here's a list of new films I discovered in 2020. They're in no particular order. Many of these were discovered on Amazon Prime, which I consider the closest thing to visiting those mom and pop video stores back in the VCR era. TCM deserves credit as well for another stellar year of programming. Many were also discovered form podcasts, notably the Pure Cinema Podcast and The Projection Booth Podcast. Mike White hosts the Projection Booth Podcast and has been hosting excellent virtual watch parties of rare films throughout the year on Friday nights. I also want to include a shout out to the Important Film Podcast hosted by Will Sloan and Justin Decloux who cover a staggering variety of films and genres each week, both are unabashed proselytizers for the cinema of Matt Farley. Here they are in particular order:

American Scary (2006, John E. Hudgens) - I enjoyed this documentary on horror hosts on American television. Local stations from the 60s to the 80s would run horror movies on the weekend that were accompanied by a host providing entertainment, usually to distract from the low quality films. Unfortunately, local TV stations would rather run infomercials or CSI reruns instead of original programming. In their own way horror hosts allowed local talent to shine and provided a sense of community.

The Cremator (1969, Juraj Herz) Brilliant and haunting film about a cremator who views his vocation as divine - transforming once living people into ashes. Set in Czechoslovakia on the eve of the 1938 German invasion, the plot takes some unexpected turns that deals with collaboration, antisemitism, nationalism, and the corrosive psychology of fascism.  Innovative editing with astounding performances. 

Baby It's You (1983, John Sayles) Set to a Bruce Springsteen soundtrack, the best example of anti-nostalgia I've yet to see. John Sayles zeroed in on the sense of ennui and desperation of the Sixties that's hardly ever represented in movies. Many people (including myself) who weren't there for the 1960s tend to see it through rose colored glasses.

My Beautiful Launderette (1985, Stephen Frears) Set in Thatcher's Britain, Pakistani, the examines the complex relationship between the English and Pakistani communities. Omar (Gordan Warnecke) aspires to be an entrepreneur with the help of his lover, a one time street thug/fascist played by Daniel Day Lewis. The film feels more relevant than ever with its intertwining themes of politics, economics, race, and sexuality. Roshan Seth gives an awesome performance as a radical journalist exiled to England. 

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973, Ivan Dixon) Too inflammatory for 1973 due to its sympathetic approach to black militancy, there's few films quite like it then or since. Am African-American man working for the CIA (hired as a token black by WASPS who run the agency) leaves out in disgust and applies CIA subversion tactics to American cities under going civil unrest.

Park Row (1952, Sam Fuller) Engaging and fast paced story about journalism in 1886.  The unveiling of the Statue of Liberty is a key plot point, an idealistic and even romantic film at times. Every character has their eye on the future as if pulled by some magical force. Fuller's direction moves like a freight train. 

Cosmos (2019, Elliot Weaver, Zandra Weaver) A modern Sci-Fi film with a beating heart, accomplishing what many set out to do on a much larger budget. Three astronomers come across strange signals and make some astonishing discoveries over the course of a night. Although the dialogue is stilted at times, it's a slow burn in the best possible sense. You might have to an amateur astronomer to appreciate this one. 

You Only Live Once (Fritz Lang, 1936) Star crossed lovers on the run, it would make a great pairing with They Live by Night. Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney exude tragic fate in their performances, downbeat in the best possible sense. 

Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973, Gilbert Cates) Heavy going Bergman influenced drama about a middle aged couple at a crossroads. Excellent performances from all. Martin Balsam gets a lead role for one and he's memorable alongside Joanne Woodward. 

This Giant Paper Mache Boulder is Actually Really Heavy (2016, Christian Nicolson) Endlessly inventive Sci-Fi parody from New Zealand. If you're fan of Edgar Wright films or Spaceballs, you'll love this gem. 

Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies in America (1992, Craig Baldwin) A hilarious mockumentary imagining the  post WWII political climate from a tripped out right wing perspective imagining a shadow war against hollow earth people manipulating world history. The filmmaker definitely did his research and used stock footage to perfection. The narration is surreal and hilarious. 

Tomorrow I'll Wake Up and Scald Myself With Tea (1977, Jindrich Polak) A wacky time travel film from Czechoslovakia. It's 1996 and time travel using rockets is a vibrant part of the tourism industry. A group of ex-Nazis want to travel back and give Hitler the H-bomb, but that's only scratching the surface of the plot. Yes, a character getting scalded with tea is a key part of the story. I was reminded of Chaplin films, imagining the tramp on a time travel journey. Pratfalls and metaphysical jokes - endlessly inventive and fun!

Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's "Island of Dr. Moreau" (2014, David Gregory) One of the best troubled production genre of documentaries. You get a visionary director pushed to the edge of sanity, Val Kilmer behaving badly, and (very) late period Brando. 

Don't Let the Riverbeast Get You! (2012, Charles Roxburgh) My intro to this film universe. Set in New Hampshire, the deadpan humor and dialogue are unique. It had the feeling of a live action Simpsons episode with an Ed Wood sensibility. Lots of great physical comedy as well, fighting and dancing!!

Harold and Maude (1971, Hal Ashby) I was late to this one, but if you haven't seen it - it's great!

No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos (2008, James Chressanthis)  Engaging on documentary on the careers of legendary cinematographers Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs. Both refugees from Hungary, they would revolutionize cinematography during their careers. Many familiar faces appear, but there are so many great films to cover I feel like some got short thrift. A must see for fans of New Hollywood.

Stay Tuned (1992, Peter Hyams) Light hearted parity of early 90s pop culture with John Ritter and Pam Dawber. So much of its time period, it's hard to resist. Ritter plays a couch potato who gets sucked into his television set. 

Going Back (1983, Ron Teachworth) It's the summer of 1964 and best friends Clee and Brice (early Bruce Campbell performance) decide to hitchhike around Michigan. Along the way they befriend a lonely older man and help him out with his farm, meanwhile Brice connects with a shy local girl. Four years later they return and discover it's hard to recapture the past. Going Back is a moving film about the decisions we make and how time passes quickly. The acting in this regional film is perfect and real. Streaming on Prime - highly recommended.

Images (1972, Robert Altman) Mesmerizing and haunting, with an awesome performance by Susannah York. My favorite Altman period, would be make a good double bill with Rosemary's Baby (I know Repulsion is the obvious choice). Interesting John Williams score.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Horror All-Nighter: 2020

 Inspired by the Pure Cinema Podcast, I decided to do a horror movie all night marathon. The goal is to watch six movies from 7pm-7am, from dusk till dawn. As a rule, classic trailers are interspersed between the features. 

Trailers: The Last House on the Left (1972); The Hand (1981)

7pm - Natural Born Killers (1994, Oliver Stone) Technically not a horror film if one is strict about genre definitions, but Natural Born Killers is very much about American horror. From a Quentin Tarantino story, which he sold for $10,000, leading to an acrimonious feud between Mr. Stone and Tarantino. Still a divisive film with its sensationalistic depiction of violence, the story follows couple Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory (Juliette Lewis) who go on a killing spree after they tie the knot, are subsequently captured, and sent to prison where they foment a bloody riot. Edited in a hyperkinetic style that recalls 60s psychedelia, but also mimicking MTV videos that were airing 24 hours a day in the 1990s, Stone never gives the audience a chance to breathe. Much of the controversy revolves around whether Stone was scolding Americans for their love of media hyped crime stories or, even worse, inviting audiences to revel in the chaos. As Stone states in the blu-ray introduction, effective satire must shock audiences. As the Mickey and Mallory unleash madness across the American West they become media heroes, a Bonnie and Clyde for the MTV generation. In flashbacks to their childhoods we see a history of neglect and abuse, especially in Mallory's awful household that's set to a sitcom laugh track. Rodney Dangerfield plays her lecherous father in one of the most disturbing performances you'll ever see in any movie. In 2020 the film has prophetic overtones. A killing spree has the look of a mass shooting, now a staple of life of America. True Crime podcasts and TV shows are bigger and more mainstream than ever before. The tabloid culture of the 1990s elected a tabloid president in 2016 (got 60 million votes) who proclaimed he could start shooting random people from a skyscraper and not lose any support. So yes, the crude, violent, and hypocritical America trumpeting family values while dooming their children's future, yeah, felt relevant this time around. Moving on!

Trailers: M (1931); Shadow of a Doubt (1943) 

9pm - Bluebeard (1944, Edgar G. Ulmar) I watched this one on a poor quality DVD which may the only appropriate way to experience it. After the onslaught of Natural Born Killers, Bluebeard plays as some garbled fever dream from the Victorian era about a psycho killer terrorizing Paris known as Bluebeard. John Carradine's (who also played Dracula) plays a dashing puppeteer and painter wooing Parisian women and then murdering them. Inspector Lefevre suspects Barrymore is the killer and sends in a beautiful undercover agent to reveal him. Directed by the legendary Edgar G. Ulmar, best known for his low budget masterpieces of expressionism., Bluebeard marked a surreal detour for the evening. 

Trailers: Rosemary's Baby (1968); Race with the Devil (1975); Wolfen (1981)

11pm - The Believers (1987, John Schlesinger) Now a change of pace: supernatural evil intruding upon the modern world. As a thriller The Believers is consistently effective, thrilling and often creepy on a subterranean level. The first five minutes are about as shocking as it gets, capturing how the routine of everyday life can quickly devolve into tragedy. Martin Sheen stars as a recently widowed psychologist who moves to New York City with his young son. Working with the Police Department, Sheen is helping them investigate a rash of child murders that appear to be ritual sacrifice tied to the Santeria community. Further investigation reveals an even deeper conspiracy involving Manhattan's elite crowd. These plot points do bring up some of the strengths and weaknesses of the film. On the first point, the plot could serve as a conspiracy theory fuel for audiences susceptible to stories involving elites and the occult (the 1980s was the decade of Satanic Panic, a dry run for today's even grander scale mass delusions). The second point is the xenophobia, any religion outside of mainline Christianity in American movies rarely gets handled with any finesse. While The Believers clumsily tries to address the issue, one character points out being a non-traditional Christian is an easy way for white Americans to marginalize a community, that particular theme is paid mere lip service (Wolfen handles it in a more interesting way). Stoking up fear over Caribbean religions has long been a cottage industry in Hollywood from the very beginning, White Zombie from 1932 being an early example. Even Sheen, a liberally minded protagonist, is revealed to have xenophobic attitudes. Christianity is not used to symbolize Western morality here, but modernity itself - another trope in supernatural thrillers. What makes The Believers effective is its sense of the uncanny, Schlesinger's focus on mundane details of everyday life create an ominous subtext carried through to the final shot. 

Trailers: Abby (1974); Needful Things (1993); Kuroneko (1968)

1am - The Wailing (2016, Na Hong-jin)

Next came The Wailing, a 150 minute horror epic from South Korea. A mysterious visitor arrives at a village and a terrifying infection begins to spread among the residents. Kwak Do-won stars as a cop investigating a string of gruesome murders possibly linked to the malady ravaging the village. A shaman is brought into town to chase the away the evil spirits, leading to one hell of an exorcism sequence. Then you realize there's still an hour to go! Tropes from so many other genres are employed from ranging from animal to zombie attacks to body horror, but The Wailing is also character driven, including wry humor and heartbreaking drama. The first hour is mostly set up and the horror slowly creeps in until the very end when you are literally inside a nightmare. Like The Believers, dueling world views are in conflict. The Catholic Church plays a peripheral (and ineffectual) role in the story. Family ties and the links people will go to protect their loved ones is another major theme. But like any masterwork of supernatural horror, it's the inexplicable aspect of the story that truly haunts the imagination. Sometimes awful things happen with no explanation, mocking our human need for reason behind senseless tragedies. The acting and cinematography are amazing.

Trailers: The Hunger (1983); The Horror of Dracula (1958)

3:30am - Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992, Francis Ford Coppola)

Another often told tale about an ancient evil intruding upon the world of science and reason. The many incarnations of Dracula up to this point had taken elements from the 1897 Bram Stoker novel, Coppola's adaptation follows the novel fairly close in structure and theme. My own memories of reading the novel are the creepy early chapters in Transylvania, but the second half became a slog (lots of blood transfusions). The film also follows that arc. The saving grace is the stunning production design by Coppola's team, pretty much every shot could be a still painting. The focus is on the sensual side of the story, staying within the Gothic tradition. Winona Ryder is strong as the lead Mina Harker who must defeat Dracula. Gary Oldman is no Bela Lugosi and his makeup is ridiculous, somewhere between Emperor Palpatine and Mr. Burns. Anthony Hopkins plays a shifty Dr. Van Helsing and a young Keanu Reeves plays the meek Jonathan Harker. A tad overlong, but a triumph of cinematic vision and production design.

Trailers: Ghost (1990); Dark Man (1990)

5:30am - The Crow (1994, Alex Proyas)

Closing out the night with The Crow felt right. A classic and influential film combining a comic book sensibility with Gothic themes, gritty action, and grunge music. The story is straight forward, a man returns from the dead to avenge those who murdered him and his girlfriend. Brandon Lee tragically died on set after being shot by what was supposed to be a fake bullet adds a layer of tragedy to the film. Lee shows potential here, if he had lived The Crow could've launched an amazing career. The set pieces are imaginative, mostly shot at night evoking a noir atmosphere. A superb supporting class including Ernie Hudson and Michael Wincott. A perfect movie for Halloween with its mix of darkness and light, an urban futuristic backdrop synthesizing Blade Runner with Escape From New York

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

H2020: #7 Amazing Stories: "Mirror, Mirror"

Air Date: March 9, 1986
Written by Joseph Minion (story by Steven Spielberg)
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Starring: Sam Waterston, Tim Robbins, Helen Shaver, and Dick Cavett

Steven Spielberg's anthology series Amazing Stories ran for two seasons on NBC. Although the show attracted the best talent of its time, the episodes were often uneven, as most TV anthologies tend to be. In an After Hours reunion, "Mirror, Mirror" was directed by Martin Scorsese and scripted by Joseph Minion. 

The 24 minute episode follows famous horror writer Jordan Manmouth (Waterston) who finds himself being terrorized by a phantom from one of his movies. The episode begins with Jordan doing a TV interview with Dick Cavett on his latest film. He confesses to taking great pleasure in terrifying people. Jaded by wealth and fame Jordan lives in a lonely mansion surrounded by reminders of his creations, telling a limo driver (Tim Robbins) he finds agents and ex-wives much scarier than his horror stories.

"Mirror, Mirror" is mostly a disappointment, reminiscent of a Night Gallery episode which were famous for squeezing an entire story out of a horror gimmick. The concept, a writer being haunted by their own creations, has potential for irony and dark humor, but it never goes anywhere: we get a cycle repetitive scenes. Scorsese included some Hitchcockian shots that will delight cinephiles, but the story ends with a thud. At best a footnote in the prolific careers of Spielberg and Scorsese. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

H2020: #6 The Gift (2000)

Over the past week I revisited Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy, even started watching the TV series Ash vs The Evil Dead (2015-2018), but I wanted to watch one of his under the radar movies. The Gift from 2000 is set in Georgia and stars Cate Blanchett as Annie Wilson, a woman with ESP skills. Recently widowed, Annie is struggling to raise three young children while some residents of the town consider her a witch. 

Written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, the script was inspired by Thornton's own childhood. Raimi gathered together a stellar cast including three Oscar winners - Cate Blanchett, Hilary Swank and J.K. Simmons. The Gift is a family drama/murder mystery with some supernatural elements. Blanchett's performance anchors the movie, a single mother struggling to get by while being marginalized by some, not unlike Christopher Walken's tragic character in The Dead Zone. Many want to use Annie's gift to their own advantage.

The plot centers around the murder of a local woman Jessica (Katie Holmes) engaged to the school principal Wayne (Greg Kinnear). The town suspects handyman Donnie (Keanu Reeves) a troublemaker with a history of domestic abuse towards his wife Valerie (Hilary Swank). Annie also witnessed some things on the night of the murder suggesting another suspect. Locals resent her being used as a consultant on the case by the police chief played by J.K. Simmons, who Raimi would later cast as J. Jonah Jameson in his Spiderman trilogy.

The Gift passes as an entertaining mystery with the expected twist ending. As a whole the film borders on underwhelming with its conventional pacing and some cliched caricatures, most notably Giovanni Ribisi chewing up scenery as a mechanic with an emotional attachment to Annie. Keanu is also over the top as the abusive husband. Blanchett is the most charismatic as a woman navigating different types of men trying to manipulate her to their own ends. Raimi's sure footed direction brought a versatility in one of the more character driven movies in his filmography. 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

H2020: #5 Army of Darkness (1992)

The trajectory of the Evil Dead trilogy from a supernatural slasher to medieval sword and sorcery epic is pleasing in a sublime way; a progression from tragic laced terror to slapstick horror and finally a sword and sorcery adventure. To quote the anti-hero of the series Ash, "Yeah, truly amazing."

Evil Dead II ended with Ash being sent back to the year 1300 and getting himself captured by Lord Arthur's army. When Ash kills a deadite after being thrown into a pit he's welcomed into the army as a hero. Then Ash goes on a quest to retrieve the Necronomicon so he can get back to the 20th Century.

Ash's quest to retrieve the book is full of slapstick humor, including a fight with a clone of himself. Once he finds the book, in a reference to one of my favorite movies The Day the Earth Stood Still, he must recite "Klaatu barada nikto" and struggles to pronounce it correctly! Meanwhile the Army of Darkness forms, composed of ghouls and skeletons, it's a spectacular shot seeing all the skeletons advance in an homage to Jason and the Argonauts. The pre-CGI effects look pretty good, way more aesthetically pleasing than the Droid army in The Phantom Menace.

At 80 minutes (a lesson more modern movies should heed) Army of Darkness never lets up. The combination of action, comedy, and medieval set pieces are a visual feast. Bruce Campbell gives a physically demanding performance, while Raimi's direction displays a comic book sensibility, skillfully mimicking the pacing and imagery of a comic book.

Looking at contemporary reviews of Army of Darkness I'm surprised at the snobby attitude of mainstream critics - Roger Ebert, Janet Maslin, and Owen Gleiberman* to mention a few. They scoffed at the juvenile humor and the camp sensibility. Camp as defined by fellow blogger John Kenneth Muir "an aesthetic style based on a sense of knowing theatricality."** Going for artificiality instead of realism allows for double meanings and making light of the goofy tendencies of cinema. The Ash character is a great example of a Camp protagonist, transcending parody and entering into a realm of heightened reality. Army of Darkness holds up so well because it refuses to take itself seriously, winking at the audience and allowing them to join the fun.

Camp has fallen out of favor with modern audiences who prefer the Christopher Nolan brand of realism for comic book pictures. But the never ending stream of Marvel and DC movies are ripe for a blistering parody at some point - especially Nolan films. I cannot imagine Nolan doing Camp. 

*I'm not someone who trashes critics or the critical enterprise. I've learned a lot about film by reading lots of criticism over the years. 

** Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp" 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

H2020: #4 Vivarium (2019)


By Source, Fair use,, courtesy Vertigo Publishing

A House Hunters episode gone really bad.  An ordinary couple Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Potts) decide to take a tour of the latest housing development. They are led there by a peculair acting man Martin (Jonathan Aris) who shows them the house and then disappears. When Tom and Gemma try to leave they discover there's no way out of the neighborhood. Trapped.

Before all this happens we're shown a nature sequence of the cuckoo bird's parasitic birthing method of leaving their eggs in another bird's nest, disrupting the flow of nature. Gemma, a teacher, comforts a child who finds a baby bird pushed out of its nest by the cuckoo, telling the child that sometimes nature is cruel. She'll soon learn the lesson all too well. 

Psychological horror may the most potent subgenre because it gets into your head. Vivarium got under my skin, a movie that may bounce around in your head for a couple days. Slightly altering the way you see the world. Accepting they're stuck, Tom and Gemma begin a daily existence, being provided with food from an indeterminate source. Both come to accept they are in some version of hell, and it's not the zany Tim Burton afterlife of calypso music and shifty exorcists. Then a baby is dropped off who quickly turns into a creepy kid, and eventually an even creepier young man. Imagine having to take care of something evil. Gemma tries to connect with the "child" while Tom begins to lose his mind, spending his days digging a hole in an existential attempt to escape. 

A slight spoiler, but the film never shows its cards. It 's unnecessary. I have an idea of what's going although it's never explicitly revealed. I suppose there are other possibilities. Metaphors abound throughout, namely, life is predictable and boring as we gradually settle into our roles. A dark theology is embedded into the movie, the universe/nature is malevolent. Nature makes a mockery of human ambition. I'm not pessimistic enough to believe that. Yes, we may all live lives of quiet desperation with little to show for it at the end. But at least there's the possibility of meaning and experiencing joy through the power of memory, a notion the film at least tries to suggest.  


Friday, September 25, 2020

H2020: #3 Evil Dead II (1987)

Evil Dead II would become a touchstone of 80s horror alongside the original Evil Dead that was released in 1981. Sam Raimi's career had stalled after his 1985 film Crime Wave flopped, so he and Bruce Campbell decided to make a follow up to The Evil Dead. Raimi's idea for a sequel was formulated during the making of the original, involving Ash being sent back to the Middle Ages to battle deadites, but that story would not be told till 1992 as Army of Darkness. Evil Dead II is more of a remix of the original, leaning towards a more comical and farcical tone. Influences ranged from The Three Stooges, 1950s b-movie horror, and McDonalds commercials. 

A framing device beings the film with an explanation of the Book of the Dead, an ancient that can unleash sinister forces. The film begins with Ash heading back to "the cabin" with his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler). Things quickly go south when they discover Professor Knowby's tapes from the Necronomicon and play them. A big mistake! Linda gets possessed, forcing Ash to kill her (a few times). Ash also gets possessed and at one point must fight off his own evil hand that attempts to strangle him by cutting it off - a moment played for laughs. It's great, a triumphant moment for Ash. 

Meanwhile, Professor Knowby's daughter Annie (Sarah Berry) acquires missing pages from the Book of the Dead and she heads to the cabin with her research assistant partner Ed (Richard Domeier). Locals lead them to the cabin where they find an embattled Ash who they believe murdered the professor and his wife. The second half of the film replays the original as they all battle the deadites, including the Professor's ghoulish wife who spouts off one liners. At one point Ash attaches a chainsaw to his stumped arm, another iconic moment. The action at the cabin plays as farce, but still gets gory with unique late 80s stop motion effects, spewing a variety of disgusting fluids.  

At 85 minutes, Evil Dead II gets in and gets out at the right time. Like the original it walks a fine line between graphic violence and slapstick comedy, this time around the camera is winking at us more often than not. Campbell's performance as Ash is a pastiche of the 80s action trope, a working class hero who finds the strength within to overcome otherworldly/demonic obstacles. The ending sets up the conclusion to the trilogy, providing an epic dimension to the saga.

Raimi would go to a successful career directing mainstream films in Hollywood, most famously the Spiderman trilogy with Tobey Maguire. The Evil Dead's imprint can be found in many of his films. Bruce Campbell can be counted on to make an appearance, as well as Ash's 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

H2020: #2 The Evil Dead (1981)

Written and directed by Sam Raimi, The Evil Dead is one of the most popular low budget horror films of all time. Shot in a guerilla style under hazardous conditions with a cast and crew of college students, the movie would launch a popular franchise of sequels, remakes, musical, and a television series. 

The premise was a familiar one for the era, a group of college kids decide to vacation at a remote cabin and things go terrifyingly wrong. Raimi spins a film of suspense and guile, a symphony of incessant chaos. When all hell literally breaks loose, a haunted house claustrophobia sets in. The gore aesthetic utilizes a cacophony of methods, usually involving Karo Oil, coffee, milky substances, and fake blood. Gore effects in movies seem to work best when they achieve verisimilitude, somewhere between the real, fake, and the fantastic. The Evil Dead succeeds to near perfection with its litany of splattering bodily fluids. 

Things quickly go amiss when they are driving through the woods and they stumble upon a rickety bridge as a POV presence follows them. The banality of these five kids, not unlike The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, adds tension to the opening act. Ashley (Bruce Campbell) is the only with any personality, more quiet and passive at first. Things go awry when they discover an ancient book in the cabin basement with a set of tape recordings. They listen to a professor recount a horrific series of events, then even creepier voices read from the book and summon the evil spirits. Once the terror takes off, starting when Cheryl (Ellen Sandweis) is sexually assaulted by a tree in an unnervingly convincing and controversial scene, but it serves a purpose: we've crossed a threshold into a terrifying realm with no rules. An onslaught of demonic possession, cannibalism, and dismemberments ensue. 

Raimi's visceral filmmaking is of the highest level with the resources available: jarring and unrelenting. A flurry of uncanny imagery and scenarios ranging from comic to nauseating, often times both. We witness the female characters become demotic fiends as Ashley looks on in shock. The sexual nature of their attacks adds another layer of unease for the audience, Ashley being straddled by his beheaded ex-girlfriend being an example. There's also the idea of being dead, but not really dead, that's a recurring motif (especially in a morbid burial scene). All of human decency and ritual are overturned in a fight for survival. Raimi cut out more serious scenes when Ash reflects on the losses and wisely kept the focus on the slapstick splatter.

An enduring quality of The Evil Dead is that it simultaneously repulses and entertains, straddling the line between the cartoonish and realistic. Breaking taboos while reestablishing a sense of normalcy through the character Ashley. Raimi's skillful direction prevents The Evil Dead from being just another schlock horror film.


Wednesday, September 23, 2020

H2020: #1 Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

The vampire genre has proved a fertile ground for musings on immortality. From Interview With a Vampire to the classic 1897 Bram Stoker novel Dracula, all explore the curse of not being able to die. Jim Jarmusch employs such an approach in Only Lovers Left Alive, one of my favorites of the past decade. 

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton star as Adam and Eve, two vampires who've been living for the past 500 years. They refer to mortal humans as zombies. They spend alternating long periods of being apart and together. Eve is living in Tangiers and maintains her friendship with the playwright and Shakespeare contemporary Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) who faked his death in 1593. Adam lives a solitary life in Detroit and writes music for local rock musicians through his intermediary in the music industry Ian played by the late Anton Yelchin. Both depressed and missing each other, Eve sets out for Detroit to reunite with Adam. When Eve's mischievous sister Ava played by Mia Wasilkowska arrives the brief respite ends.  

Once reunited, Adam and Eve have officially been married three times, both reflect on the decades since their last meeting. Eve is fascinated with abandoned Detroit at night, reflecting, "when the cities in the South burn, Detroit will bloom." They have lived on the fringes of civilization and witnessed many rise and fall over the centuries. The combination of Detroit and Tangiers creates a unique mood. 

Despite their hip charm, vampires still thirst for human blood. Adam has a contact at the hospital "Dr. Watson" played by a suspicious Jeffrey Wright who supplies him with a fresh supply. Obtaining blood the old fashioned way, preying on unsuspecting victims, is only used for emergencies and considered obsolete. When not in need of blood, they pursue their various artistic and intellectual pursuits. Adam is a science prodigy and at one time aspired to emulate his heroes Galileo and Einstein, but at some point lost faith in science as a means of changing the world and now composes music. Eve still believes in the power of art.

Swinton and Hiddleston both provide a sense of tragedy and sensuality to their roles, both cursed and blessed with immortality. Music is the force sustaining both of them. There's no low brow or high brow, references run the gambit from Eddie Cochrane to Jack White and they're always on the lookout for something new, even in a world they view to be in terminal decline. At one point Eve asks, "Have the water wars started yet?"

I suppose living for centuries on end would lead any thinking person to philosophy. Watching the film during a time of quarantine felt cathartic, a vampire's life is built around social distance and nighttime after all! We're all torn between our primal instincts and aspirations to a more dignified approach to life so the characters Adam and Eve are relatable. 

Jarmusch's ennui aesthetic he's employed throughout his career starting with Stranger Than Paradise segue ways perfectly with the vampire film. Only Lovers Left Alive is drowned in darkness and neon, life on the space between the birth and death of a culture. 


Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Cigarettes & Coffee (1993) Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

Cigarettes & Coffee was an early short film by Paul Thomas Anderson made in 1993, a few years before his major breakout Boogie Nights. The film plays like a rough draft of Anderson's debut feature Hard Eight (AKA Sydney) which dealt with a mentor relationship between a wizened gambler and an aimless young man. Phillip Baker Hall virtually plays the same role here. It begins with Hall instructing a man on the ritual of lighting a cigarette and having a cup of coffee. The younger man played by Kirk Baltz (he famously played the cop tormented by Mr. Blonde in Reservoir Dogs) is about to reveal a secret. Then the camera shifts to a man and woman a couple of booths down, we learn they're on their honeymoon and are having an intense argument over a craps game. Meanwhile the camera follows an ominous Miguel Ferrer taking phone calls outside which may be connected to the other characters.

A simmering mood piece for 23 minutes, the diner setting being serves as a place for high drama also used memorably in Pulp Fiction and Heat. The title itself is a direct reference to the Jim Jarmusch film Coffee & Cigarettes, a series of wry vignettes. Anderson uses the format to display understated drama, mere glimpses of relationships with long histories. Imagery focuses on the minor details: money, coffee cups, two shots, and close ups. The tension between the laid back atmosphere and ominous goings in the background create an effective tension. Hard Eight would explore the mentor relationship further, only it plays out with a crime narrative in the background. 

Sunday, May 3, 2020

A View To A Kill (1985)

Conversation between myself and a 007 Fan.

007: So, Eric it's time we talk about A View To a Kill.

Eric: Yeah, I was sort of dreading this one. My least favorite Bond film. 

007: Be honest, did you actually watch it?

Eric: A few years ago. This time I stuck to youtube clips. 

007: How would you sum it up in one word?

Eric: Clunky

007: Let's start with the opening sequence.

Eric: I know some fans love it. "According to Wikipedia" it led to the popularity of snowboarding.

007: Still, it looks like an outtake from a previous movie. 

Eric: And they use "California Girls" for no reason. Not even The Beach Boys version!

007: Remember David Lee Roth did a famous remake around that time, an attempt to connect with the MTV generation?

Eric: There's an interview on youtube of Roger Moore promoting the film on MTV, very awkward.

007: Octopussy would've been a suitable finale for Moore. He's noticeably aging in this one.

Eric: As many pointed out in 1985. Moore was appalled when he discovered he was older than the mother of his love interest played by Tanya Roberts!

007: Yeah, there's a creep factor for sure. A more age appropriate actress would've been a wise move. What about the villains?

Eric: Christopher Walken would become known for playing great villains. Here he's not memorable. Not sure why. Perhaps they held back, King of New York remains one of the great performances of all time. 

007: Grace Jones makes for an interesting presence, but the script never lets the characters do anything besides fight and spout one liners.

Eric: The action scenes are never too engaging. The movie borders on parody at times, Zucker Brother type stuff. The Zuckers doing a Bond send up - there's an idea.

007: The idea of an aging Bond is an intriguing one.

Eric: Right, a film marketed as Bond's final mission or something like that would be great. Here he still acts like he's still 35.

007: Anything good to say on A View to A Kill.

Eric: The Duran Duran song is pretty good.

007: The music video is better than the movie! Anything on the actual plot.

Eric: Not really, a plot to blow up Silicon Valley. The San Andreas bit was taken from Superman!

007: Yeah, the less said the better on the plot. 

Eric: Well, some people love it.

007: That's great, to each their own. It was still a hit by the way, it was one of the top grossing films of 1985.

Eric: A new Bond film is still an event.

007: I'm just waiting for No Time to Die to finally come out! 

Octopussy (1983)

Octopussy is one of the more underrated Bond films. Perhaps it's due to the ridiculous title. Or maybe it's the lack of an awe inducing sequence. Even some of the lesser entries are remembered more if they have at least one great stunt. That's not meant to be a criticism of the film at all, director John Glen crafted a smooth narrative from start to finish, unconventional in a stealth sort of way. Moore's sixth outing as 007, the story makes light of his age, especially in a bittersweet scene with Miss Moneypenny as she's training her protege. 

A classic and even somewhat realistic Cold War plot involving a rogue Soviet General Orlov played by Steven Berkoff who made a career playing Russian bad guys (also a respected playwright) is scheming to break up N.A.T.O. and thereby cause a geopolitical earthquake in Europe. Bond traces some Faberge Eggs to the plot and discovers that Orlov is working in tandem with Afghan soldier of fortune Kamal Khan (Louis Jordan). Using two villains was a nice touch, changing the dynamic of what's expected in a Bond film. 007 is then led to a mysterious woman known as Octopussy (Maud Adams), an entrepreneur playing both sides. 

The tangled plot resembles From Russia With Love with its layers of intrigue. Even the stunts and fight scenes display a nice range from the grandiose to the tactile, such as Magda's (Kristina Wayborn) Rapunzel type inspired escape from Bond. A train chase and a climatic fight on an airplane deliver as premium action scenes. On location filming in Berlin and India also provided a scenic travelogue.

Octopussy grossed better than the competing Bond film Never Say Never Again. Released in June, it would earn sixth place in U.S. Box Office during the summer when Return of the Jedi dwarfed the competition. The theme by John Barry and performed by Rita Coolidge suited the textured and well worn tapestry of this late stage Moore entry. 


Friday, May 1, 2020

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

The landscape of film criticism has changed considerably since the 1970s, which was the heyday of film critic Pauline Kael. She wrote iconoclastic reviews with a unique style, literary and confrontational. The documentary serves as a primer on Kael's life and work, although the best place to go is to read her books. Kael's ability to bring an academic and popular sensibility to criticism remains influential.

Kael grew up in California and set out to be a writer early on. A single mother, she raised her daughter while trying to earn a living as a writer, working as a nanny and other service jobs. Eventually by the early 1960s her writing started to gain attention. In 1965 she became the film critic for McCall's magazine, but was fired after she wrote a negative review of the 1965 film The Sound of Music

Kael championed films as popular art. Her reactions were unpredictable, but compelling. She dismissed Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey for being shallow and redundant. Dubious of blockbusters, she panned Raiders of the Lost Ark, but loved Temple of Doom. Many misread Kael as an elitist, probably because she wrote for the New Yorker, but the documentary presents her as more of a proselytizer for cinema. Movies, a transcendent art, function as a portal to making sense of reality. 

With the platform of the New Yorker which gave her unlimited space, her reviews were widely read and discussed. Her reactions were subjective and unpredictable, glowing praise with razor sharp criticism. Her favorable reviews for Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, Robert Altman heralded the rise of New Hollywood. Her review of Bonnie and Clyde was a sort of manifesto for the new American cinema.

Those closest to Kael also appear in the film including her daughter who served as caretaker and typist. Filmmakers discuss her influence on their aesthetic, including Quentin Tarantino and David O. Russell. Her feuds and prickly relationships with her peers are also covered, and also how personal bias could also influence her reviews.

Neither does the film shy away from her cruel streaks. British director David Lean recalled being shaken after an encounter with her. Kael also demanded complete loyalty in her circle of friends, banishing anyone who disagreed with her. Being a woman in a male dominated field meant one had to be tough and uncompromising at times. 

The gracefully argues Kael can make you a believer in movies, providing her readers with the courage to have a point of view.


Wednesday, April 29, 2020

For Your Eyes Only (1981)

In a time when fan reactions have become a corrosive influence on pop culture, it's worth remembering fan responses have always influenced creators, Sherlock Holmes being an example. Fans were aghast at the demise of Holmes in "The Final Problem" so Sir Arthur Conan Doyle resurrected the detective. For Your Eyes Only marked a return to the basics, an attempt to recapture the tone of the early Connery films, and in that regard it was successful. 

John Glen made his directing debut and would go to direct three more - moving the series away from its more fantastical tendencies. The restrained tone of For Your Eyes Only is film's greatest strength and weakness. The classic approach compensates for the sometimes workmanlike plot which involves a McGuffin, a missile guidance system the British lose during a submarine accident. Bond's assignment is to track down the system and prevent the Soviets from obtaining it, leading him into the European underworld.

Screenwriter Richard Maibaum drew upon some Ian Fleming short stories and even used some scenes from the novels, for example the scene when Bond and Melina (Carole Bouquet) are dragged through a coral reef was directly taken from Live and Let Die. So we get a film from the world of Ian Fleming, one often filled with smugglers and gangsters with the Cold War as a backdrop.

Most remember the cold open which featured the return of "Blofeld," who once again gets dispatched by Bond. I like how it acknowledges the continuity of the series. It was also there to take a jab at Kevin McClory who tied up the producers in litigation over the creative rights to the SPECTRE concept. 

The theme performed by Sheena Easton remains memorable, staying faithful to the style of the film.

The film also ends with a "cameo" by Margaret Thatcher which was oddly out of tune with the rest of the movie. But everything in between is mostly engaging, a lo-fi entry that dispensed with gadgets and a garish last act, instead we get a realistic confrontation on a mountain with one of Roger Moore's best lines as 007, "That's detente comrade, you don't have it, I don't have it."


Monday, April 27, 2020

Moonraker (1979)

While the teaser at the conclusion of The Spy Who Loved Me stated For Your Eyes Only would be the next Bond film, the project was put on hold in favor of Moonraker. With Star Wars igniting a renaissance in Sci-Fi, the Bond series decided it was time to send 007 off to outer space, at least for the last act of the film.

For the first 2/3 of Moonraker remains fairly conventional outing with Bond on the trail of a Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), a private entrepreneur who wants to send human to space (Elon Musk prototype). Of course not! Drax is a maniacal eugenicist who wants to create a super race of humans in space. Maybe the most droll villain in any Bond film. He's creating his own space force as well, and apparently NASA also had one of their own in 1979!

The prologue is a knockout featuring sky diving and an aerial battle over a parachute. Bond's investigation of Drax sends him all over the world from California to Venice to Rio de Janeiro. A highlight includes Bond escaping from a speeding centrifuge and there's an impressive cable car sequence. He teams up with CIA agent Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) in their quest to stop Drax. Jaws also returns, but the character's already becoming tiresome by this point. 

It's fair to say Moonraker is when the series jumped the shark. Not only is Bond a masterful astronaut with no training, he can also pilot a space shuttle. Moonraker is actually a lot of fun if you're in the right mood. Not unsurprisingly the franchise would reboot themselves for the 1980s, staying with Moore for three more films, but keeping the adventures tactile and earthbound. Bernard Lee made his final appearance as M who unfortunately never got a proper farewell in the film.


Friday, April 24, 2020

The Hunt For Red October (1990)

One of the best Cold War films ever made, The Hunt For Red October is about a renegade Soviet sub commander heading towards the American coast. Neither side knows of his intentions: Has he gone mad and decided to launch an attack? Or, as CIA analyst Jack Ryan believes, does he intend to defect?

Based on the Tom Clancy bestseller, which was more of a technical manual on modern submarine warfare, the film managed to create an incisive character study about two kindred souls on opposite sides of the Cold War. Sean Connery plays Captain Marko Ramius, a highly respected Soviet officer in command of the new submarine Red October, which has the ability to go stealth and elude U.S. radar systems, making it a possible first strike weapon. To further alarm U.S. intelligence, he's heading directly for the East Coast. 

Alec Baldwin plays Jack Ryan, a naval historian turned CIA analyst who believes Ramius intends to defect. Ryan had compiled a dossier on Ramius and believes he has valuable insight about his intentions. Ryan's main task is to convince his superiors in the CIA and the military Ramius isn't trying to start a war. It's the classic scenario of the man of books trying to persuade the men of action. Although we learn later Ryan was a former marine who opted for the academic life.

Red October is full of great supporting roles. James Earl Jones as Admiral Greer, Ryan's mentor at the CIA. Fred Dalton Thompson as an admiral, Sam Neill as Ramius's executive officer, Joss Ackland as the cagey Soviet ambassador, Richard Jordan as the shrewd National Security Advisor, Courtney B. Vance as a brilliant sonar operator, Tim Curry as a Soviet doctor, and Scott Glenn as an American sub commander who decides to trust Ryan.

John McTiernan's direction is masterful here as well, taking a complex plot and making it engaging and suspenseful. There's a realistic look to the film, never a nationalistic "look what our toys can do" type approach, but a sober minded look at the role of submarines in international relations. The film avoids all the bad Cold War cliches for the most part, except for the driven Soviet commander Tupolev (Stellan Skarsgard) pursuing Ramius. Soviet officers are humanized, while the Americans are portrayed as wise professionals doing their best to avoid a war. 

Dare I say it's a movie liberals and conservatives can both appreciate. Those on the right will admire the heroic portrayal of the U.S. Navy and its respect for tradition, while those on the left will respect a movie not glorifying militarism (like many of the era), but championing decent characters employing rationality and courage to navigate themselves through a crisis.

Released in 1990 at the height of glasnost perestroika and the imminent fall of the Berlin Wall, it was a hopeful time in international politics. With liberal democracy spreading throughout Europe, the film manages to channel the euphoria that a more peaceful era could be on the way, as Ryan says to Ramius at the end, "Welcome to the New World, Sir." Such sentiments sound beyond naive in 2020, but at the very least Red October does a superb job of portraying characters putting their lives and reputations on the line for peace - and a better world.


The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

In the biggest Bond film up to that point, The Spy Who Loved Me riveted audiences with the impressive stunts, high production value, steel toothed villains, and even channeling the political zeitgeist with a detente themed plot. 

The year 1977 was dominated by Star Wars which marked a sea change in movie history, launching the age of the blockbuster (with many precursors including Jaws). George Lucas and Steven Spielberg would even create their own brand of Bond films with the Indiana Jones films. 

The Spy Who Loved Me marked a return to the large scale spectacles of the 1960s. In many ways the plot would resemble You Only Live Twice which was about orchestrating a war between the superpowers. Karl Stromberg (Curt Jergens) is the super-villain this time, a sort of Blofeld light.

The prologue remains one of the most memorable with its ski chase and parachute dive off a mountain, which apparently made audiences gasp at its premiere in London. When a submarine goes missing 007 teams with KGB agent Triple X (Barbara Bach) to unlock the mystery of the subs. 

They are pursued by Jaws, memorably played by Richard Kiel. He's a giant with steel teeth and apparently a mute. I remember he scared me as a kid - and he's still rather intimidating in the fight scenes. He's also used to great effect for a set piece shot at the pyramids.

Big battles and dramatic chases populate the film, including a dramatic climax. While I enjoy The Spy Who Loved Me, it never knocks me out like some of the others. Moore is so nonplussed and remote throughout, the stakes never feel that high despite the machinations of the plot.

The theme song is one of the best, written by Marvin Hamlisch and performed by Carly Simon is a highlight. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Live and Let Die (1973)

Live and Let Die would set a new course for the Bond series with Roger Moore taking over the role. Inspired by the popular blaxploitation films of the era, Live and Let Die was one of the first to be influenced popular genres of its era - a trend for the franchise throughout the 70s.

Based on the second Ian Fleming James Bond novel of the same title, which dealt with smuggling in the Caribbean and Western anxiety about communism gaining a foothold in Latin America. The film omitted the international politics element and focus on the drug smuggling aspect of the story.

Filming on location in Harlem placed Bond in an unfamiliar atmosphere, while the sequences in Louisiana and Florida are like Dukes of Hazard meets Crocodile Hunter. Jamaica stood in for the fictional place of San Monique where Voodoo and magic play a role in the plot.

The prologue does not feature Bond, but sets up the story. Three British officials are killed in New York, New Orleans, and San Monique. All are connected to Prime Minister Kananga (Yaphet Kotto). M makes a pre-dawn visit to Bond's house and sends him off to New York to investigate. 

Kotto as Mr. Big/Kananga was a great casting choice, combining sophistication with menace. Jane Seymour made her film debut as Solitaire, a Priestess who uses Tarot Cards to guide Kananga. Julius Harris as Tee Hee Johnson wears a bionic arm, possibly a precursor to Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me. Geoffery Holder as Baron Semedi brought a supernatural element to the film, more trickster than a villain. 

Other peripheral characters include Felix Leiter, this time played by TV star David Hedison. Clifton James provides comic relief as Sheriff J.W. Pepper. Major set pieces included a double decker bus chase, a boat chase, and the final showdown between Bond and Kananga. 

The racial politics of the film have not aged well. Cultural appropriation cannot be denied since blaxploitation movies were made outside of the Hollywood system (which offered few too many roles for minorities) with African-American casts and crew. James Bond as a white character symbolizes British imperialism, so combining these two sensibilities was smart marketing and a bold creative choice, but poorly executed. 

Black characters in the film for the most part are either deceitful or cruel, the exception being Quarrel Jr (Roy Stewart). Caribbean politics are portrayed as corrupt and irresponsible. Kotto has spoken in interviews on how the producers did not want him at the premier and Moore's cool attitude towards him, in particular Moore writing unfavorably of him in his memoir as having "a chip on his shoulder."

Like much of 1970s pop culture, the James Bond films made awkward attempts to stay current. It's still an entertaining film and offers everything one would expect from the series. Paul McCartney's theme is arguably the best of the series, along with the soundtrack of George Martin.


Getting Straight (1970)

Part of the cycle of campus unrest films of the early 1970s, Getting Straight stars Elliot Gould as a seasoned and idealistic graduate student clashing with the Establishment every waking moment of his life. Despite some dated elements, a compelling portrait is presented of an American campus during a time when institutions were under the microscope. 

Gould is an icon of American film during the 1970s. Always irreverent but with a growing sense of malaise as the decade progressed, his filmography is a narrative in itself. Here Gould's in full rebel mode, playing a character not toofar from Trapper John he made famous in 1970 in MASH. Harry's at heart a reformer and wants to be a teacher, but not one who's going to go through the motions each year, preparing young people for a staid middle class existence. 

As a graduate student he's assigned to teach remedial classes on grammar, and he manages to connect with his students. More teaching scenes would've humanized him even more. The film is filled with so much manic activity outside the classroom. First of all, Harry's no saint, a bit of a blowhard himself. Sometimes he's the entitled white guy explaining to an African-American man where he's wrong on civil rights, or the emotional abuse he dishes on his girlfriend Jan (Candice Bergen) for not being as hip as him, and insulting her desire to marry and have a family as, you guessed it, so middle class.

In a way it's refreshing to have a teacher protagonist who's more of an anti-hero. So many films build up dedicated teachers as saints doing a thankless job. Or the opposite approach, a teacher is a horrible person and resents not being more successful so they like to destroy any student they see as having promise, thinking Whiplash. Educators are flawed human beings like everyone else and that's the portrait we have in Getting Straight.

Harry's clashes with the establishment are the most compelling scenes. University administrators and academic department view students as statistics they are mandated by the state to educate. Classrooms and the grading systems are more alienating than inspiring, and that is what Harry is fighting against. Academics don't come off well in the film, even over the top at times. During his Masters oral exam, one professor tries to humiliate Harry over a provocative interpretation of The Great Gatsby. I'm sure some of this still goes one, I once had a prof rake me over the coals because he was having a bad day.

His interactions with undergraduates also shed light on the era. Most of them are there to party and take advantage of their freedom. Some want to avoid being sent to Vietnam, while others want to take advantage of the opportunities presented by a state school. In the backdrop are protests against the war, almost foreshadowing the massacre at Kent. St that same year. There are petitions to legalize marijuana and for a less culturally biased curriculum - young people pushing the institutions for change. 

While Getting Straight has some dated qualities, many of the issues raised are still being fought over. We're still having a discussion on the value of going to college: an enriching experience that produce mindful citizens or a factory to churn out corporate professionals? The cost of college and role of the state are also issues in the background. Who should pay? How should teachers be compensated? 

Everything was more heightened during this era, every issue is a battleground between the forces of change and reaction. That's not unlike today either. There's no existential threat young people face on the level of the Vietnam War. I don't want to speak for what young people of the moment are anxious about, but it's not being sent to foreign land to kill people. But Getting Straight does capture the disconnect going on at the current moment, older people will always grumble when young people start to get outspoken, when old ways of doing things are questioned - the film nails that sentiment. 

Richard Rush directed the film, a veteran of AIP films Hell's Angels on Wheels and Psyche-Out, he would go on to make one of my favorites The Stuntman. There's a lot camera movement, creating a sense of everything always being in motion and moving forward. Getting Straight is a minor classic in its direct engagement with the era from which it was made.